Who are they?
Learn & Co
9-11 London Lane
We have met with Learn and Co staff. In addition, 20 clients and 20 tutors have completed an on-line survey (sent to 43 clients and 35 tutors) and we have followed this up with additional short phone interviews with some of those surveyed.
Learn & Co staff
The young and trendy team (with website pics to prove it) of 10 had doubled in size in the month alone that it took us to review this agency – business can’t be bad. ‘It’s true, although we don’t ever want to be so big that we lose our personal touch,’ insists Maria Toubbe, who founded the agency in 2014 as a way of bringing together her love of languages (‘I come from a multicultural family’) and connecting with young people (‘I was a camp leader in France for 10 years’). Both Maria’s parents are teachers and although she too loves teaching (or in her case, tutoring), she always had a dream of running her own business. Fluent in five languages – French, English, Spanish, Italian and German - she’s certainly well placed to run this niche language agency.
Tutors appreciate the small company feel. ‘It’s really hands on, with great communications,’ said one. ‘If I ever have any issues, I just call or email them and they are really responsive – I don’t bother working for other agencies because of it,’ said another. Parents also talk of ‘Maria’s personal attention’ and ‘bespoke’ service. ‘Very flexible and a little less formal than other agencies, which I like,’ said one parent. Covid permitting, the team works in an East London office that’s been converted from flats.
Maria – who has a BA and MA in modern languages and business, plus an MA in diplomacy and strategic negotiations, all from La Sorbonne Paris – lives between Fulham, Manchester and Paris. Judging from her typical 7am to 11pm working day, she’s something of a workaholic though still finds time for playing the violin and piano, as well as martial arts and reading – ‘mainly fictional, historic and feminist.’ ‘Amazing,’ is how most parents describe her; ‘quite a force of nature,’ felt one.
What do they offer?
Language tuition is the raison d'être of this company, with tutees comprising an even split of children and adults. German, Spanish and French are the main languages taught, with Arabic and Portuguese increasingly popular, while smaller numbers opt for Italian and Chinese. They’re still worth a punt if you have your eye on another language too as they love a challenge and are happy to headhunt – for instance, a number of London-based Russian parents have recently approached them to get their offspring up to scratch on their native language. Their work with children mainly consists of GCSE and A level/IB preparation, with a few Common Entrance and scholarship students, plus some younger ones (age 7 minimum). Adults come to them either as corporate clients (business development training offered by their company) or individuals wanting to learn or brush up on a language for personal development.
Parents rate the company highly, with many evidencing their claims. ‘My daughter got grade 7 after being predicted grade 3.’ ‘My son was ready to give it up and finally decided to continue languages up to A level and finished with an A* - I think that says it all!’ ‘Maria charges a high rate, but it was definitely worth it for the confidence she gave my daughter, which led her to persevere with French, achieve an A* and eventually get accepted to Oxford.’ ‘My child is not a natural linguist and was struggling with the French oral part of her GCSE work – Maria gave her so much confidence that she scored a 9!’
For face-to-face tutoring they cover North, East and West London, with online tutoring (which started taking off in 2017) spanning Greater London and beyond, although they don’t (perhaps surprisingly) do masses overseas, with the exception of Hong Kong and Singapore which is a growth area for them.
Some of their students are home schooled but there’s no SEN provision – yet, anyway (watch this space, says the company). No residentials either, but they are working on developing immersion courses (‘one of my dream projects,’ says Maria) whereby 14-19 year-olds would go for one to two weeks to the country whose language they are studying and immerse themselves in a culture while at the same time having access to intensive tuition courses. ‘The idea would be to have lessons in the morning, work experience in the afternoon and a few hours to spend in restaurants and other social activities in the evening.’
Strong links with heads of MFL in both independent and state schools across London mean this is an agency that often comes recommended by teachers.
Background and basics
A growing (but not too fast, insists Maria) company, now with 35 tutors who worked with 48 families in the 12 months leading up to our review. All are native level English speakers educated to degree level or beyond, with at least two years’ online tutoring or teching experience. As always, we select some parents at random to follow up on their questionnaire responses and found that almost all had used Maria herself (and we had to work hard to find others that hadn’t), though Maria says she only provides a tenth of all tutoring and plans to do even less in the future.
So how does Maria find her tutors? Largely through the company website (occasionally with pleas for new recruits), but mainly as a result of Maria being on constant lookout for who’s top of their game in the world of language teaching – ‘It’s my favourite bit of the job as I’d rather have five really great Spanish teachers than 10 who are okay.’ Those whose CVs and cover letters she likes the look of get a face-to-face (or online during Covid) interview where Maria looks for evidence of them not just knowing the language inside out but really enjoying language teaching because ‘we’re not just about getting people through exams but expanding minds and installing a love of language.’ A trial lesson ensures ‘they can teach and cope with challenges when they arise. I ask them, how would you explain this? What if a student does that? Etc.’
The ability to motivate students is a key priority for Maria, as is having a patient, supportive and engaging approach, good time management and organisational skills, working well under pressure and being good humoured. Enhanced DBS required, and two references are followed up. We liked how (unusually for a tutor agency, even post-Covid) Maria talked about taking some tutors on specifically for online or face-to-face work, rather than both – ‘It doesn’t follow that all tutors are good at both.’
Matching is efficient – in most cases the client is presented with two or three tutors to pick from on the same day, though more unusual requests can take longer. ‘I’m recommending Maria’s services to everyone I know who needs a language tutor because she’s amazing at understanding what people need and matching students with the perfect tutor – and she’ll always find the time to talk over the phone to help wherever she can,’ said a parent, one of many who also praised the regular feedback they get about their child’s lessons.
‘We couldn’t be more happy,’ said another. ‘She was able to pair my son with the perfect tutor.’ ‘She understood my son and his needs and he looks forward to his lessons,’ felt one. ‘She was super organised and efficient and knew how to connect with him and make learning fun.’ Though one parent warned, ‘Perhaps not always the most punctual, but that’s London I guess.’
Tutors get training in areas such as safeguarding, and all are invited to an annual meeting (online for now) where they can share their successes and challenges. ‘We talk about the industry best practices, discuss client feedback and share resources.’ All tutors are offered annual appraisals ‘and based on that they re-evaluate our fees, which feels more than fair,’ according to one tutor, with another one telling us, ‘This company focuses on student needs and understands that treating tutors well is part of that.’
Learn & Co currently does no charity work – they’re too small, says Maria, but she hopes to partner with school associations in Africa, South America in the future ‘because languages are a key factor for social mobility.’ Working with underprivileged families in the UK is also on the cards. Learn & Co is a corporate member of The Tutors Association.
Money and small print
No registration fee, but T&Cs signed by both clients and tutors. Fees range from £65-110 (average £80) per hour based on the complexity of the assignment, number of tutees (they offer small group sessions) and the tutor’s experience. ‘At the expensive end, but worth it,’ reckoned one client who uses multiple tutor agencies. ‘It was expensive, but I was asking for a small miracle and Maria delivered that,’ said another. All fees include travel. Invoices are sent out at the end of the month. We don’t like it when tutor agencies don’t answer our question about tutors’ rates, but our ‘transparency, please!’ prompt led Maria to explain that the range is between £35-60 per hour. There’s a 48-hour cancellation policy, though illness will usually trump that (‘unless they’re ill every week!’).
Learn & Co say
‘We think our young team of tutors can relate and speak directly to our students. Every student is so very different. Some need nurture and balanced encouragement, some need to be pushed and challenged to find their full potential. That is this careful balance that I believe all our tutors strive for. It is the driving force behind the results we achieve.’
This young, enthusiastic and growing team is an excellent port of call for language tuition. Even with reluctant teenagers, who aren’t the easiest to connect with, they seem to get them to look forward to their lessons and achieving superb results. ‘She pushed my son hard but he enjoyed the lessons, so it was a win win!’ summed up one parent.